Poetry at ‘Hibr’ in London: ‘The Sea Cast Up Its Shells’

At the beginning of this month, the Goldsmiths English PEN society hosted Hibr, or ‘Ink’: a festival of and about Arabic poetry: 

By Sophia Brown

The day’s program was balanced between discussion and readings, in both Arabic and English:

Poetry, Politics and Palestine

Atef Alshaer. (C) Goldsmiths English PEN.

The day began with a talk by Atef Alshaer on Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis, paying particular attention to the ways in which their poetry expresses both the individual and the collective. This was best expressed through Alshaer’s observation that, while a crystallisation of Arab political and social realities can be identified in much of the two men’s poetry, what is also inherent is a commitment to their own poetic sensibility. In the case of Darwish, Alshaer defines his poetic sensibility as a loyalty to lyricism that is concerned with what it means, fundamentally, to be a human being. With Adonis, the driving force Alshaer identified was a commitment to a philosophical register. Alshaer highlighted the metaphysical qualities of the Syrian poet’s work, which he rightly admitted also often renders it far less accessible.

What was most interesting about Alshaer’s talk was his assessment of Darwish’s long career and the phases through which it moved. I was particularly struck by the observation that Darwish’s later poetry exemplifies a shift away from the explicit vocabulary of resistance found in earlier work (most famously in ‘Bitaqat Hawiyyah’/ ‘Identity Card’), to a period of “post-resistance.” The poetry of this latter period he defined, intriguingly, as created within resistance but not about it. The failures of achieving Palestinian self-determination and the general despair of the post-Oslo period make this notion of post-resistance a persuasive one. Indeed, Alshaer offered a good reminder for those of us who study the region’s literature: that we would do well to think beyond the categories – such as modernity and postmodernity, colonial and postcolonial – that dominate academia in the English-speaking world. Instead, he said, we should strive for terms genuinely relevant to each context.

This was followed by a fascinating conversation between Sarah Irving and Naomi Foyle about the complex process of editing a poetry collection in translation. The discussion centred on A Bird is Not a Stone, edited by Irving, and A Blade of Grass, edited by Foyle. Both are important – and much-needed – anthologies of contemporary Palestinian poetry. What emerged from the conversation was a reminder of the challenges of working with different scripts – with Irving wryly referring to “the inherent linguistic colonialism” of design software – and that translation inevitably involves navigating between choices that often seem inadequate in comparison to the original.

As both collections opted for the bridge method of translation, there was much discussion of how this worked—especially in the case of A Bird is Not a Stone, which includes some different final translations of the same Arabic poem from the “literal” translation, as well as translations into Scottish languages. Both editors indicated that this process of double translation was precisely that: a process, made up of multiple stages. The possibilities facing each individual translator are almost infinite, and the challenge is in knowing that opting for one closes off many others. Irving recounted the different approaches of two of the translators, Magi Gibson and Alasdair Gray. Both translated a poem by Bisan Abu Khaled, لم يعد في قصائد بوشكين, and even the titles exemplify the different journeys that translations can take: ‘What Pushkin’s Poems Never Said’ (Gibson) and ‘Not Considered in Poems of Pushkin’ (Gray).

I was also very interested in what Foyle said about fighting against “ideological translation.” She explained that one of the poets included in the collection, Dareen Tatour, was arrested in October 2015 and remains under house arrest, charged with inciting violence through a poem posted online – ‘Resist, My People, Resist Them’. This charge is largely the result of (mis)translation. Foyle gave the example of the Israeli court’s political transliteration of the Arabic term, shuhadaa’, into the Hebrew, shahidim, a Hebraicization which denies a proper translation of the Arabic in order to allow the prosecution to claim that Tatour’s poem was making a reference to ‘terrorists’. This incorrect – and yet hideously consequential – transliteration denies the divergent meanings of the two terms and, in particular, disavows Tatour’s actual intent in referring to “martyrs.” Her case – set to conclude this month – is an all-too familiar reminder of the massive challenges facing Palestinian writers and cultural practitioners in Palestine/Israel.

Cities in Poetry

Abdelkareem Kasid at center. (C) Goldsmiths English PEN.

In the late afternoon, there was a session with the Kurdish British-Syrian writer, Amir Darwish, who spoke movingly about his difficult, abusive childhood in Syria and his memories of Damascus, detailed in his memoir, From Aleppo Without Love. He also spoke about the ways in which his poetry has informed his prose. I was most moved, though, by the session with Abdulkareem Kasid, an Iraqi poet who has lived in exile since 1978, a long experience of displacement that is reflected in many of his poems. Kasid is an animated, precise, and at times intense reader of his poetry, and his session moved rapidly back and forth between the Arabic original and the English translations. It was an apt reminder of the inevitable distance in tone and metre – never mind meaning – between a poem in its original language and a translation.

The readings were predominantly taken from Kasid’s latest translated collection, Sarabad. One that stood out was ‘Aden’s Volcano’, addressed to Arthur Rimbaud – who, appropriately enough, Kasid has translated into Arabic. They highlight the French poet’s time spent in Aden, Yemen, where Kasid also lived. This stanza captures some of the spirit of the poem and its attentiveness both to Rimbaud and to the city, which lies in the crater of a volcano:

You were the beautiful sky, stretched above
the abyss, star overlooking the rock
tormented through the night.
Your ‘burning patience’ extinguished now
you sneak back like daylight, slipping through alleyways
through front doors of houses, left ajar
closed at night, a dwelling goes down, like a rock.
swallowed up by the mountain.
At night, you see nothing but that.
Cisterns loom, ladders
are lowered into a pit.
the women of Aden descend,
the women of Aden spread clothes on the sand
their voices raised. The sea casts up its shells.
Who will hold back the sea?
Your view of the village fades.
Demons load distant ships
What hell was this you saw? Ships sink.
You open Aden’s volcano
and rise, burning, to sing.

Another reading also evoked the urban amidst a sense of disquiet, this time in a very short poem that is part of a series entitled ‘Epigrams’. After the festival came to a close, these lines stayed with me longest:

The passer-by said:

Although the forest is inhabited by beasts

We sleep in peace.

The resident replied:

Though our cities are inhabited by humans

We worry about beasts.

Sophia Brown (@sophia_stories) is currently an associate lecturer at Goldsmiths, teaching contemporary literature (in English and in translation) from Africa and the Arab world. Her research focuses on life writing, Palestine, and the politics of publishing.